Bernanke Boost

Last week ended with a downward revision to US Q2 GDP. The data clarified that growth momentum going into Q3 was indeed quite weak though it probably didn’t take the GDP revision to tell us this nugget of information, something that has been evident from the run of weak data over recent months.

Softer growth in Q2 placed particular attention on the Jackson Hole speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke in which he acknowledged the slowing in the pace of growth, but also forecast a moderate economic recovery in H2 2010. Importantly if the Fed is proven wrong he noted the FOMC would undertake unconventional (quantitative easing) QE II measures if needed.

The net impact on Bernanke’s speech and the smaller than expected downward revision to US Q2 GDP was to provide a boost to risk appetite. Sentiment will at least begin this week on a positive note in the knowledge that the Fed stands ready to act although double dip fears are far from over.

One trigger for Fed action will be a further deterioration in job market conditions and markets will pay close attention to the August US jobs report at the end of the week. Bloomberg consensus estimates forecast a 100 drop in payrolls, with private payrolls up 47k and the unemployment rate edging higher to 9.6%. Such an outcome would do little to boost confidence in a jobs market recovery.

The week begins with all eyes on Japan however, with an emergency Bank of Japan (BoJ) meeting in focus. USD/JPY has already jumped higher on the belief that concrete action will emerge to weaken the JPY. The risk of disappointment is high and at most the BoJ will announce measures to extend loans to banks. A lack of other action especially in the form of FX intervention alongside a likely increase in risk aversion once the Bernanke bounce wares off, will result in a renewed USD/JPY move lower, with a breach of 85.00 likely. As seen in the chart below a decisive turn in the Japanese stocks will be a key factor in helping to eventually drive USD/JPY higher.

Two other central bank meetings of note this week are the European Central Bank (ECB) and Sweden’s Riksbank meetings on Thursday. No change in policy by the ECB will be of little surprise but the release of new staff projections, with growth likely to be revised up in 2010 but left unchanged for 2011, will be of interest. Developments regarding open market operations will also be of attention. In contrast, the Riksbank is widely expected to hike rates by 25bps on the back of a firming economy and house price inflation.

A UK holiday today will likely keep liquidity thin and as noted above risk currencies including AUD, NZD and CAD as well as Asian currencies will start the week firmer but will struggle to hold gains as the week progresses. EUR/USD has benefited little from improved risk appetite and will have a hard time this week making much any headway although potential EUR/CHF buying from the SNB may give some, albeit limited support.

A renewed downside move to support around EUR/USD 1.2455 remains on the cards in the short term. Overall USD sentiment has become less negative as reflected in the CFTC IMM positioning data in contrast to a renewed deterioration in EUR speculative sentiment. We look for more of the same.

Split personality

Markets are exhibiting a Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with a clear case of split personality. Intensifying risk aversion initially provoked USD and JPY strength, with most crosses against these currencies under pressure. Both USD/JPY and EUR/JPY breezed through psychological and technical barriers, with the latter hitting a nine-year low. However, this reversed abruptly in the wake of extremely poor US existing home sales, which plunged 27.2% in July, alongside downward revisions to prior months, a much bigger drop than forecast.

Obviously double-dip fears have increased but how realistic are such fears? Whilst much of the drop in home sales can be attributed to the expiry of tax credits, investors can be forgiven for thinking that renewed housing market weakness may lead the way in fuelling a more generalized US economic downdraft. The slow pace of jobs market improvement highlights that the risks to the consumer are still significant, whilst tight credit and weaker equities, suggests that wealth and income effects remain unsupportive.

FX markets will need to determine whether to buy USDs on higher risk aversion or sell USDs on signs of weaker growth and potential quantitative easing. I suspect the former, with the USD likely to remain firm against most risk currencies. The only positive thing to note in relation to the rise in risk aversion is that it is taking place in an orderly manner, with markets not panicking (yet).

European data in the form of June industrial new orders delivered a pleasant surprise, up 2.5%, but sentiment for European markets was delivered a blow from the downgrade of Ireland’s credit rating to AA- from AA which took place after the close. The data suggests that the momentum of European growth in Q3 may not be as soft as initially feared following the robust Q2 GDP outcome.

Japan has rather more to worry about on the growth front, especially given the weaker starting point as revealed in recently soft Q2 GDP data. Japan revealed a wider than expected trade surplus in July but this was caused by a bigger drop in exports than imports, adding to signs of softening domestic activity. The strength of the JPY is clearly making the job of officials harder but so far there has been no sign of imminent official FX action.

Japan’s finance minister Noda highlighted that recent FX moves have been “one sided” and that “appropriate action will be taken when necessary”. The sharp move in JPY crosses resulted in a jump in JPY volatility, a factor that will result in a greater probability of actual FX intervention but the prospects of intervention are likely to remain limited unless the move in the JPY accelerates. USD/JPY hit a low of 83.60 overnight but has recovered some lost ground, with 83.50 seen as the next key support level. JPY crosses may see some support from market wariness on possible BoJ JPY action, but the overall bias remains downwards versus JPY.

Week Ahead

The market mood can be characterised as uncertain and somewhat downbeat, as reflected by the downdraft in US equity markets which posted their second weekly loss last week. Conversely, there has been a bullish run in government bonds, with the notable exception of peripheral debt. Over the last week markets had to contend with more data disappointment, in the wake of soft Japanese Q2 GDP, and a plunge in the August Philly Fed into negative territory, its first contraction since July 2009. Additionally a jump in jobless claims, which hit 500k highlighted the slow improvement in US job market conditions currently underway.

Despite all of this, the USD proved resilient and instead of the usual sell-off in the wake of soft data it benefited instead from increased risk aversion. The USD is set to retain some of this resilience though range-trading is likely to dominate over much of the weak. Reflecting the USD’s firmer stance, speculative positioning in the form of the CFTC IMM data revealed a reduction in aggregate USD short positioning in the latest week and although positioning is well below the three-month average, the improvement over the latest week and current magnitude of short positioning, highlights the potential and scope for further short-covering.

Negative data surprises have forced many to downgrade their forecasts for growth and policy implications, especially in the US. Markets will look for further clarity on the economic outlook this week but it is not clear that anything conclusive will be delivered. At the end of the week Q2 GDP will be revised sharply lower and whilst the data is backward looking it will reveal the weaker momentum of growth going into the second half of the year.

US Housing data will be mixed, with existing home sales set to drop in July as the impact of the expiration of home buyers tax credits continues to sink in whilst new home sales will likely increase but only marginally and will remain well below the April levels. Overall the picture of housing market activity remains bleak and this week’s data will do little to shake this off. On a more positive note July durable goods orders and August Michigan confidence will rise, the latter only marginally though. There will be plenty of attention on Fed Chairman Bernanke’s speech at the Jackson Hole Fed conference at the end of the week, especially given speculation of more quantitative easing in the pipeline.

The European data slate kicks off today with the release of manufacturing and service sector PMIs. Both are likely to register small declines, albeit from high levels. Nonetheless, taken together with a likely drop in the August German IFO survey on Wednesday and weaker June industrial orders tomorrow, the data will highlight that the momentum of growth in the region is coming off the boil, with the robust GDP outcome registered in Q2 2010 highly unlikely to be repeated. Against this background EUR/USD will find it difficult to make any headway. Technically further donwnside is likely over the short-term, with a test of 1.2605 support on the cards

Japan releases its slate of month end releases including jobs data, household spending and CPI. A slight improvement in job market conditions and increased spending will be insufficient to allay growth and deflation concerns, especially with CPI remaining firmly in negative territory. The onus will remain on the authorities to try to engineer a weaker JPY, which remains stubbornly around the 85.00 level versus USD. Talk of a BoJ / MoF meeting today has been dismissed, suggesting the prospect of imminent action is small. Meanwhile, speculative JPY positioning has dropped slightly in the last week but remain close to historical highs.

Aside from various data releases this week markets will digest the outcome of Australia’s federal elections. From the point of view of markets the outcome was the worst possible, with no clear winner as both the incumbent Prime Minister of the ruling Labour Party and opposition Liberal-National Party leader Tony Abbot failed to gain an outright majority. The outcome of a hung parliament will likely keep the AUD on the back foot, with trading in the currency likely be somewhat volatile until a clear outcome is established as both candidates try to garner the support of a handful of independents. However, it is notable that apart from an initial drop the AUD has managed to hold its ground. Nonetheless, the given the fluidity of the political situation there will be few investors wanted to take long positions at current levels around 0.8900 versus USD.

Two-way FX risk returns

It appears that there is a bit of a sea change taking place in currency markets. Since early June the trend in currency markets would have looked like a one way bet to most casual observers. For instance, the USD index was declining fairly steadily and predictability as US growth worries intensified and markets anticipated a resumption of quantitative easing by the Fed. This changed quite dramatically over recent days, with a significant degree of two-way risk re-entering the market as the USD shook off worries about Fed quantitative easing and instead rallied in the wake of higher risk aversion.

The introduction of two-way risk into the market will cause a rethink of the increasingly fashionable view that the USD was about to embark on a renewed negative trend. This change in market perspective has coincided with renewed concerns about European sovereign risks, even as European growth has come in much stronger than expected over Q2. Other currencies have also lost ground against the USD more recently, with the notable exception of the JPY which remains close to the psychological level of 85.00.

Until recently the move in FX markets since early June contrasted with my view that Q3 would be a period of uncertainty and volatility. Improved risk appetite reflected a decline in uncertainty but whilst I now believe that Q3 will see less of an increase in risk aversion than previously anticipated, my core views remain unchanged. I see the USD resuming an appreciation trend against the EUR and funding currencies (JPY and CHF) whilst weakening against higher yielding risk currencies (AUD, NZD and CAD) over the medium term.

Although FX markets will likely gyrate between the influences of risk aversion on the one hand and growth/interest rates on the other, risk is likely to take the upper hand over the coming weeks. The influence of risk aversion has jumped sharply over the last few weeks for almost all currencies. As risk appetite was improving as it has done for much of the period since early June, it played negatively for the USD but the recent increase in risk aversion – brought about by renewed growth concerns, sovereign worries in the eurozone, with Ireland in particular coming under scrutiny – has managed to reverse this trend. The one-way bet for investors now appears to be over.

Only time will tell if the EUR’s recent bull run has come to an end but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that plenty of good news has now been priced in and that further upside will be much more difficult to achieve. Even the recently strong growth data in the eurozone has thrown up potential problems including growing divergence as well as the potential for a slowdown over coming quarters. Further strengthening of the EUR will be a particular problem for eurozone growth, especially for exporting countries such as Germany. In any case, even the recent drop in the EUR leaves the currency at an overvalued level and susceptible to further falls. Over the coming weeks a period of consolidation is likely, with the EUR set to take a weaker tone.

The JPY in contrast has shown little sign of weakening and continues to flirt with the key psychological level of 85.00 much to the detriment of the Japanese economy, leading to growing frustration from Japanese officials. Much weaker than expected Q2 GDP data has given even more reason to engineer a weaker JPY but as yet the only intervention has come verbally and even this has not been particularly strong. In the absence of FX intervention, the Japanese authorities may be forced to consider other options such as increasing outright JGB purchases.

Like the EUR and JPY, GBP will find it tough to extend gains against the USD especially given that the doves at the Bank of England will likely remain in the ascendancy as growth moderates. GBP is also less undervalued than it was just a few weeks back suggesting that the argument for GBP strength has weakened. Nonetheless, GBP is likely to outperform against a generally weaker EUR ending 2010 around 0.78.

Similarly, CHF will likely maintain its strength against the EUR in the short term but unlike GBP this will likely give way to weakness and a gradual move higher in EUR/CHF to around 1.37 by year end. An eventual improvement in risk appetite and some relative economic underperformance will undermine the case for holding CHF.

Scandinavian currencies are likely to struggle in the short term due to market nervousness about a US double dip in an environment of elevated risk aversion. Interest rates will also play an important role in driving NOK and SEK as will be the case for most currencies eventually. Divergence in rate views for Norway and Sweden suggests holding a short SEK long NOK position. Overall, with two-way risk now much more evident as many investors return from their summer break the FX market will look far less predictable than it did before they left.

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